10 famous men who almost failed

From Michael Jordan to Elvis Presley, some of the biggest stars of all time have had to triumph over adversity.

Peter Iantorno November 13, 2014

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." The old adage has been drummed into our heads ever since we were despondent young children tasting failure for the first time.

But now as adults when we encounter genuine obstacles in life, it's easy to ignore that advice and give up, the words having lost their effect over the years. However, in difficult moments when you're thinking of throwing in the towel, perhaps a more appropriate inspiration than those hollow words is the real stories of famous people who overcame great challenges of their own to triumph over adversity.

Without astonishing willpower, determination, guts and a little bit of luck, nobody would have ever heard of any of the 10 names on this list. But these men all have one thing in common: they all had such a will to succeed that they dragged themselves up from the brink of failure and reached the very top.

If we can learn one thing from their stories, it's that if you give up at the first, second, third or even the 10,000th attempt, you're guaranteed to fail. But if you keep on going no matter what, you might just achieve greatness.

1. Winston Churchill Winston Churchill.

Great Britain's greatest ever leader wasn't always the resounding success he is known for having been today. In fact, he failed the entry test for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst twice, only to scrape through at the third time of asking for the cavalry class, which had lower entry standards than infantry.

As well as for his legendary leadership of Britain through the Second World War, we'll also remember him for his inspirational quotes, such as "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" and "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it's the courage to continue that counts."

2. Michael Jordan Michael Jordan. The man who we all now know to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time was dropped from his high-school team and made to play at a lower standard as a 15-year-old because, at 5 foot 10 inches, he was too short.

After an impressive growth spurt and an even more impressive string of performances in the junior squad, Jordan was offered a basketball scholarship at North Carolina. He was later drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and the rest, as they say, is history.

3. Thomas Edison Thomas Edison. It's widely reported that Thomas Edison - one of the greatest inventors of all time - struggled at school and was fired from his first two jobs for being unproductive.

Even in his passion for inventing, the lightbulb wasn't something that he merely stumbled upon; he had some 10,000 failed attempts before he finally found the solution. And his response to those who accused him of failing? "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work."

4. Walt Disney Walt Disney. Having built one of the most successful mass media corporations the world has ever seen, it would be natural to assume that Walt Disney had a pretty smooth ride to success. However, almost unbelievably, in 1919, Disney was fired from his job at the Kansas City Star because the editor at the time thought he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas".

After this setback, Disney acquired an animation company, which failed spectacularly, ending in bankruptcy. At this point, a lesser man would have taken his former editor's criticisms to heart and left the media rat race, but Disney decided to give it yet another shot, producing a cartoon series featuring a lovable mouse that ended up doing rather well...

5. Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg. Hollywood's most bankable director, with three Oscars and a slew of smash hits to his name including Schindler's List, Jaws, War Horse and too many others to mention, surely Steven Spielberg was always destined for filmmaking greatness? Apparently not, as he was actually rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television not one, not two, but three times!

He eventually managed to get a place at California State University, which he subsequently dropped out of to pursue his directing dream. A full 35 years after starting his degree, despite already being a massive success and hugely wealthy, Spielberg returned to university and finally earned that degree.

6. Harrison Ford Harrison Ford. For someone who starred in one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, acting wasn't always going to be the way forward for Harrison Ford. In fact, the now 72-year-old actually quit acting for a while to take up carpentry as he thought that would give him a better chance of supporting his then wife and two young sons.

As luck would have it, in 1973 a certain George Lucas needed some cabinets making, and he hired Ford for the job. The pair kept in touch, and a couple of years later Lucas asked Ford to read lines for auditioning actors in his upcoming Star Wars film, only for him to be so impressed that he decided Ford would be perfect for the part of Han Solo. It's safe to say that after that, Ford didn't need to fall back on his carpentry work again.

7. Charlie Chaplin Charlie Chaplin. In a list of iconic movie stars, you'd be hard-pressed to find a name (and a face) more famous than Charlie Chaplin. But the legendary comic actor didn't have things all his own way, as his first show was actually rejected by film executives on the basis that they thought people wouldn't understand it.

Obviously they were proved spectacularly wrong, as Chaplin became perhaps the most universally appreciated comedian and actor ever, with his screen persona "the tramp" widely regarded to be a pivotal figure in the history of film.

8. Jim Carrey Jim Carrey. At the age of 15, Jim Carrey - or James Eugene Carry, as he was known back then - was forced to drop out of school and work as a janitor to support his family when his father was made redundant. On top of this, he also cared for his mother, who was battling against a chronic illness.

But instead of letting all these hardships get him down, Carrey used them as inspiration and put all the negative energy they created into developing his unique style, which would earn him many a major role in Hollywood films and ultimately a personal fortune of more than $150 million.

9. The Beatles The Beatles. The band that won the hearts of millions and inspired pretty much anyone who has ever picked up a guitar, there's no doubt that The Beatles are one of music's all-time greats. However, not everyone could see their talent, as they were actually turned down by a record label when they were just starting out.

Decca Recording Studios, who had worked with the Liverpool group on 15 tracks, famously said of the Beatles, "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. They have no future in the business." How wrong they were.

10. Elvis Presley Elvis. And finally, Jimmy Denny, manager of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry concert hall, once famously told Elvis Presley, the King of rock 'n' roll: "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin' a truck."

Thankfully for the music industry and anyone who's ever heard an Elvis record, Presley ignored that rather cruel advice and went on to become one of the biggest music stars the world has ever seen.